This post is full of honestly described product and bodily function, so stop now if you’re squeamish.
I started my journey into alternative feminine products almost a year and a half ago. I had always used Always pads and Tampax cotton cardboard applicator tampons. Pads always made me itchy in the front, and tampons seemed to make my (already bad) cramps worse, so I didn’t use the tampons much. I also have long and heavy cycle, so I have to work with that. I wanted to choose items that would be better for the environment and (once I learned about them) safer for me with my allergies. I think I tried most kinds of products on the market.
Menstrual Cups (Update)
My first alternative menstrual product was a DivaCup. This fantastic silicone cup allows you to go up to 12 hours between emptying (way more than a tampon), and there should be no leaks if inserted correctly. You wash the cup with water and DivaCup cleanser when you can, rinse it with water if you can’t, and just empty and reinsert if you’re really in a place where you can’t deal with it. The cup allows you to feel comfortable sleeping in without fear of morning leaks or toxic shock syndrome if you sleep more than eight hours, and can be boiled to sterilize. It also allows you to know exactly what’s going on each day of your cycle, allowing you a better connection to your body.
It took a little bit of time to get insertion right, and I occasionally had leaks in the first two to three days of my cycle, but it prevented most leaks and required very little maintenance. After contacting the company, it turns out I have a normal though uncommon condition where my cervix drops down a bit for the first few days of my cycle, causing the cup to sit squished rather than round during that time and making small leaks, but it was still a vast improvement. After some time, I began to start feeling like I had a yeast infection any time I used the cup, and for some time afterward. This was obviously not good. I am unsure whether there was something in the wash that caused my discomfort or if the cup became contaminated. I stopped using the cup last spring, though I may try again in the future once I sterilize the cup and check more thoroughly into the ingredients in the wash. Pure bar soap would probably be fine to wash the cup, and then I wouldn’t have to worry.
Three months after starting the DivaCup, on my way across the country for Christmas, I learned about fabric pads. The brand that I first encountered was Party in my Pants (PIMP). They claimed to feel drier and more comfortable, and be better for the environment. I decided to give it a shot. I picked up one medium pad. Though it cost twice as much as a whole package of Always pads, it did indeed live up to the claims. My itching disappeared, the pad stayed put, and it felt WAY drier than the moisture-trapping disposable pads, especially on the later days of my cycle when my flow was slow. I love that I can simply undo the snaps and move the pad to a new pair of underwear if pad changing time and clothing-changing times don’t line up, and if you order directly from the company online, you can ask them to put a second snap on their larger pads so that you can wear them with narrower-gusseted underwear (the part that goes between your legs).
You do have to wash fabric pads, and I do it by hand so they last longer, but it’s something you get used to. Make sure you hang them to dry. I liked it enough to pick up a second one on my trip back home after Christmas, and order a few more a month later, direct from the company. I now have a full range of fabric pads, ranging from pantyliners to a heavy overnight. Without using the cup, I do have the occasional leak, but that’s no different from how my life was with disposable pads.
Around July (the same time my eyes began to swell up), I started to get a bit itchy with the cloth pads. I didn’t know why. I used disposable products while camping, but I’ve since realized that the detergent I was washing the fabric pads in was Woolite. Woolite contains isothiazolinones and fragrance. That would account for the itching. I have since washed them all with unscented bar laundry soap and pure bar hand soap, and haven’t had any more problems. It’s now a year and a half after purchase, and I’m still enjoying them.
There are many brands of cloth pads on the market, and I’m sure each would be suitable for different people. I chose the PIMP pads because they were the first I’d encountered, and bought more because I didn’t like the designs and prices of the others. One fabric pad involves special underwear that the pad material slips into. Another involves a pad outer which you can customize with the level of protection you want by slipping absorbent material into it. Prices are slightly higher than the PIMP. Yet another option is “period underwear,” which has the protection built in but requires a complete change of underwear every time, and is especially pricey.
Here’s a hint: If you have heavy flow, get at least TWO overnight/heavy pads, as they take longer to dry and thus you can’t use them for two days in a row. Two pantyliners are probably enough for most people, unless you’re using them for light bladder control.
Organic Disposable Pads and Tampons
Organic pads and tampons are available from health food and some grocery stores for about $6-8 for 10-12 pads, and tampons are similar. They claim to be made of organic cotton, with a cellulose (paper) covering. The fact that they are made of organic cotton is great, but then they have an outer paper layer, which can contain all manner of chemicals. I’ve never seen or heard of such a thing as mass-produced organic paper, even after working in the paper industry, so I’m pretty confident it doesn’t exist. I tried the pads during a time I was also having some toilet paper and systemic allergy issues, so I’m not sure I gave them a fair shot, but they seemed to cause some itching. Not as bad as the Always pads, but some. For short term during travel, they may be useful or necessary, but for day-to-day I think I’ll stick with cloth. Plus the price is horrid and the environmental impact is still higher than cloth pads. Organic tampons, on the other hand, should require only minor contact with the paper portion of the packaging, and might be safer allergy-wise. Again, I haven’t quite given them a fair shot yet.
Another product on the market is the natural sea sponge. Straight from the package, they seem like two very hard, very large, crunchy, slightly irregular ovals. I would always recommend washing in a safe cleaner such as soap before use. Once wet, they become more pliable and softer to insert, so that is what I did. The idea is to get them high enough into your vaginal canal that they will be able to expand and stay put, but not too high that you can’t reach them to get them back out. They’re not as finicky to insert as a cup, but they’re more challenging than modern tampons.
I found the sponges did absorb, but they did not block all flow, resulting in my needing a pad as backup. During certain movement I would have minor leakage, but the pad solved that problem. The most awkward thing about them, other than insertion and removal, was the smell. Because they are made of a natural sea creature, they have a bit of a ocean-like odour, which tends to hang around for a day or so after you stop using them. Overall, I think they have their place, but I won’t be using them all the time.
For short-term travel (1-2 days) during my cycle, cloth pads are fine. I have enough pads to get me through a short time. For the PIMP pads in particular, they are designed to fold inward for storage when clean or dirty, making travel easier. For longer travel, or travel during high-flow days, I would probably recommend using pads in combination with other options such as the cup and sea sponges or organic cotton tampons, if your body can tolerate them. Extra protection is always a good thing when you can’t get up to change things very often.
So those are the list of alternative products I’ve found for trying to be more allergy-friendly and environmentally-conscious. I now no longer have monthly itchiness, and am happy that I am not filling a garbage can for one week of every month.
Have you found any other alternative feminine hygiene products? What did you think of them? Comment below.